Pro Football Focus Analyst Sam Monson published the site’s full ranking of all 32 offensive line units in the NFL in 2016, and concluded that the New Orleans Saints come in at #12 on the season. Sandwiched between the #13 Cincinnati Bengals and the #11 Buffalo Bills, here is what Monson wrote about the Saints front five.
Injury hit the Saints’ line this season, and LT Terron Armstead—well on his way to being one of the best tackles in the league—played just 397 snaps across seven games, leaving more than one of those contents injured. The Saints didn’t have an adequate replacement plan in place, and Andrus Peat was inconsistent (at best) as he moved between left tackle and left guard all season. Zach Strief was the team’s best lineman at RT, allowing two sacks over 717 pass-blocking snaps, but Max Unger also played well in the center, giving up only 12 total QB pressures all season. If this unit gets Armstead back and healthy, it has the potential to be far better in a hurry.
Referring to PFF’s proprietary scores (with readers being mindful of this caveat), I’ll do a brief state-of-affairs summary for each player on the Saints offensive line this season. We’ll take a look at Terron Armstead, Zach Strief, Andrus Peat, as well as Max Unger Jahri Evans, Senio Kelemete, and Tim Lelito.
Though mired by knee ails most of the season, and add in the fact that Armstead wasn’t even available for half of the Saints games this, PFF graded the LT out with a pass-blocking score of 86.2 - good for 10th overall. He was given a 72.4 for his limited run-blocking - coming in at 41st overall. His aggregate score, again over only 7 games, was an 84.1 - good for 21st overall. Not too shabby for the 25 year old from Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
He’ll be 26 by the time the 2017 season kicks off and, given the fact that he’s never played a full season in 4 years as a pro, coupled with his shiny contract extension good for $65 million over 5 years, it’s safe to say we’re all really hoping for and expecting a resurgence in 2017.
PFF was quite fond of Strief, awarding him the highest overall grade of the unit (86.8), which ranks 14th of all eligible tackles. He notched the top run-blocking grade on the team (82.3) and was 17th overall in pass-blocking among eligible tackles with an 86.2.
Though the 11 year veteran turns 34 come September, there’s no reason to expect he’s going anywhere next season. Whether he’ll maintain the level of play we saw from him this year is no guarantee, but the 2013 First Team All Pro has yet to miss more than 2 games in that span and has been consistent.
Entering his sophomore season out of Stanford after being selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, expectations have been somewhat tempered as to what we might see from this impossibly large human. He’s shifted all over the line in his two seasons and though he was drafted as a tackle, NFL.com currently lists him as a guard.
As alluded to in Monson’s summary above, Peat has yet to live up to some of the fanfare surrounding him when he declared for the draft. Peat has an overall grade of 69.8 (ranked 44th among tackles, per PFF) with pass-blocking and run-blocking scores also in the high 60s. Certainly not ideal, but there’s no reason to think we can’t expect to see some growth in 2017.
Center Max Unger missed his first game as a member of the Saints this season, and his play has been respectable, conservatively speaking. He’s PFF’s 12th ranked center (83.8), though among all offensive line anchors in the league, he’s their 6th ranked pass-blocker (85.7). His run-blocking could benefit from some improvements per PFF, as he was just 19th at his position (74.8).
I’m pleased he’s been extended by the team and I feel that despite PFF’s run-blocking score for him, he’s a big part of the relative gains the Saints rushing attack has seen since his arrival. He’ll turn 31 this year, but that’s not awful for an offensive lineman.
33 year old Evans was released by the Saints last offseason, joined the Seattle Seahawks for a brief stint during their training, and returned to New Orleans on a one year deal with a cool million. The 6-time Pro Bowler (4-time first team All Pro) didn’t miss a game all season.
PFF was somewhat kind to him as well, ranking him 36th among eligible guards (76.8). He was 20th in the league in pass-blocking, though 50th in run-blocking. He’s hitting free agency next month and though he was serviceable this year, I can’t imagine he’ll be back on the team save for him signing a very reasonable contract.
The Saints selected Kelemete in the 5th round of the 2012 draft, and though he got the most starts of his young career this season (9) he has yet to string together quality play. PFF graded him at 55th overall among guards, including a pass-blocking rank of 63rd. Kelemete’s highest rank came in run-blocking, at 40th, on 664 total snaps.
We’ve got the Washington product for another season before he hits free agency. It’ll be a contract year, but given his deficiencies it’s not unreasonable to think his window to earn a decent payday hasn’t been more narrow.
Unlike Kelemete, Lelito’s contract is up next month and he’s expected to hit free agency alongside Evans. The Grand Valley State product turns 28 this year and has in the past shown flashes on the offensive line, especially in the run game. He’s missed one game in his 4 year career, but started 7 this season as compared with 13 last year.
According to PFF, Lelito ranks 49th among all guards. For 2016, he was 46th in pass-blocking but a meager 49th in run-blocking. The good news here is that as a result of his 2016 season he shouldn’t command a big salary in free agency. We also at least suspect that he’s well-liked within the organization. The bad news, clearly, is that we can’t say a whole lot about what to expect from him should he return. Perhaps the Saints will leave him be and deal with other FA targets or find a rookie(s) to step in? We’ll see.
As a quick final aside, Monson had our NFC South rivals ranked thusly - #6 Atlanta Falcons (thanks to Alex Mack and Andy Levitre), #17 Carolina Panthers (Andrew Norwell was their best guy, per PFF), #23 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (that Ali Marpet guy is half decent, evidently).